Back in high school, I tanked a composition assignment by writing a terrible Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy parody. The details are unimportant: just know that it featured space penguins and a sheltered 17-year-old’s weak attempt at having anything clever to say about life, the universe, and everything. It could have died there, but our principal visited our English class the next day to keep tabs on our English teacher, who didn’t always follow the script. Looking back, our English teacher could have taken it in stride, or toed the line, or taken any number of steps to just get things over with quickly and quietly.
But no. He decided to read my story out loud to the whole class. Thirty minutes of simplistic paradoxes, bad attempts at British humor by way of a Southern American upbringing, and blatant literary theft. I knew it was terrible. He knew it was terrible, and he was letting me know he knew it was terrible. My class and our principal were learning that truth in real time, word after excruciating word. It was the most passive-aggressive literary response I’ve ever seen.
What I’m saying is this: bad Douglas Adams pastiches have a surprisingly large blast radius. People get hurt.
Thankfully, Catherynne M. Valente is up to the task of creating something true to Adams’ spirit, but which also stays true to its own logic, its own set of rules, and its own moral code. As a result, Space Opera isn’t an Adams clone or parody. Valente is up-front in acknowledging Adams as a guiding spirit, but Space Opera charts its own corner of our stupid, beautiful universe and displays nothing but originality along the way.
Space Opera‘s premise is that near-future Earth finally makes First Contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence — or rather, it makes contact with us, to tell us that we must prove our sentience. If we succeed, we join the throng of galactic civilizations out there among the stars. If not? Well, as the alien emissary to Earth puts it, “all memory of your collective existence will be lovingly collated and archived, your planetary resources tenderly extracted, and your species totally annihilated. Your organic material will be seamlessly reincorporated into your biosphere and your planet left in peace to try again with dolphins or something in another billion years or so. FUN!”
How will humanity prove its worth? By competing against the other civilizations in a galactic-scale Eurovision-style singing contest. As long as Earth doesn’t finish dead last, they’re fine. Last place means extinction. Thus, it falls on the shoulders of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, “an early 2020s British glam-trash rock trio headed by a multi-ethnic genderfluid former glitter messiah who only ever managed one hit album when they were at the top of their game.” The aliens provide a helpful list of Earth’s musical acts who might be up to the task, but to the Zeroes’ has-been horror, they’re one of the only acts still alive (the interstellar lag of Earth broadcasts being what it is).
Yoko Ono, Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Spice Girls, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk are all dead by this time and, as one human puts it, “Skrillex is not going to go down as the savior of humanity. It’s just not happening. I’d rather die in a sea of nuclear fire.” So that pretty well establishes the level of absurdity that fuels Space Opera. It’s a tall order even before the Zeroes learn of the epic scale achieved by past acts, from one race literally infecting the audience with its song to a particularly homicidal planet’s delegate blowing a tune through the skeleton of its freshly-killed mate. Take anything you’ve seen on Earth’s Eurovision contest and multiply it by the resources, imaginations, and twisted personalities of entire planets.
Space Opera would easily succeed if futuristic humor-for-the-sake-of-humor was its only goal, but Valente strives for more. Space Opera takes place in a future when Britain has gone through a massive deportation initiative that directly affected Zeroes frontman Decibel Jones (aka Danesh Jalo). Events like this, not to mention countless other actions by humans and their governments, don’t stack the deck in favor of our sentience. As the alien herald puts it to the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives:
You can’t even agree on whether or not a sick child should get a tissue without having to really work for it … In a clinch, you lot would rather watch someone suffer untold horrors than watch them enjoy so much as a cool drink if you don’t have two of your own, and yours have cherries in them as well as more ice and little paper umbrellas, and even then most of you would still prefer to take theirs and have three. This is not the behavior of a sentient race. It is the behavior of wild animals.
So while the book’s tagline of “Life Is Beautiful and Life Is Stupid” encapsulates its primary vein of Hitchhikers-style humor, its acknowledgement that systems protect themselves and leave regular folks in the lurch recalls the righteous anger that often informed Terry Pratchett’s and Kurt Vonnegut’s books. In addition to its joyful absurdity, then, Space Opera‘s humor comes from two of comedy’s main wellsprings: anger and love. There’s anger at what we do to ourselves and to each other, and there’s love for our potential to do better. Decibel Jones and his bandmate Oort St. Ultraviolet didn’t get to seasoned adulthood without internalizing a fair bit of optimism, pessimism, love, and anger, and the pair’s well-meaning alien guides often run up against the contradictions that come along with being human.
In her career, Valente has written just about every kind of fantasy or science fiction tale imaginable, all tied together by an unyielding humanity. One particular favorite is her short story “The Days of Flaming Motorcycles”, a striking tale about life in a zombie-consumed town that manages to touch on family bonds, regret, and religion in unexpected and memorable ways. Valente doesn’t do anything halfway, from her inspired plots to her colorful, crafted sentences. The sentences are worth praise all their own in Space Opera. The longest ones are like guitar solos stretching out, rising, falling, doubling back on themselves, returning to root notes so that they can go on another flight. Early in the book, they make you feel the same dizziness that humanity must be feeling in the wake of the extraterrestrial infodump they’ve just gotten. These sentences swirl along in glorious jumbles of sci-fi jargon, slang, and just plain made-up words — a space ship is a “hand-me-down FTL-capable hoopty”, an alien race is referred to as mutant murderhippos — and it all just makes sense: frenetic, hyper-verbal sense.
In the end, it all comes together in unexpected and satisfying ways as Valente answers the looming question: In light of the grandeur that’s marked past competitions, what can two stressed-out humans possibly hope to accomplish? Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet enter the book haunted by the past, uncertain about the future, and the idea of saving humanity’s skin with a song seems especially ludicrous considering the two don’t even get along anymore. Things go off the rails in a hurry, but even the most seemingly inconsequential, debauched rock star acts turn out to have repercussions beyond what the two Earthlings could ever imagine. Page after page, Space Opera piles absurdity upon absurdity, but in the end it makes more than a few sharp points and offers no small amount of hope at what tomorrow could bring.
It also might have the most accurate chapter on cats ever written.